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Agapi Gessesse

Agapi Gessesse, Executive Director of CEE Center for Young Black Professionals and Founder of Lehizibu Strategy and Consulting Group


1) What is your profession and what are the specific dimensions of your work?

I have the honour and privilege of serving as the Executive Director at CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals and the Founder of Lehizibu.

2) How did you come to this type of career?

My career path took a meaningful turn thanks to my lived experience, specifically through a leadership program aimed at Toronto’s young leaders, reminiscent of what we now offer at the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals. This transition from volunteering to a professional role in social services was driven by a personal journey – navigating life’s ups and downs after losing my mother at a young age. It was a pivotal moment, realizing the impact of giving back in the same way I had been supported. This realization didn’t just change my career trajectory; it shaped my purpose to empower and uplift others, inspired by the support that once made a significant difference in my own life.

3) Tell us something about your process of study and formal and/or informal education and the nature of your degrees and/or training. When, where, and how did you become educated and qualified to do what you do?

My educational journey began under challenging circumstances, following the loss of my mother just as I was entering high school. This event led to a delayed start and a constant game of catch-up throughout my high school years. Despite these difficulties, I persevered and eventually made my way to university, a journey that extended over six years. Initially, my academic pursuits felt more like a survival mission than a traditional learning experience, leaving me eager to close the chapter on formal education. I was mostly motivated because I was passed up on a job promotion (for a job I was already doing for almost a year) because the other candidate had a degree.

However, my perspective shifted after completing my undergraduate degree, leading me to pursue further education at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC. This experience was transformative, offering me the opportunity to delve deeply into subjects I was genuinely passionate about. I graduated with a degree in social justice, a field that resonated with my personal experiences and aspirations. This period of my life also allowed me to explore new regions of Canada, experiencing its diverse landscapes and cultures firsthand.

Interestingly, my academic background did not directly open doors to many of the career opportunities I’ve encountered. Instead, I found myself in roles that seemed beyond my qualifications at the time. This is why I always say you can buy a degree, but you cannot buy hard work and hustle. Both make you unstoppable. This aspect of my journey has led me to view education not merely as the acquisition of degrees but as a means to gain exposure and a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives.

4) What were the greatest obstacles that you had to overcome to achieve the success that you now experience? What challenges have your experienced and how have you overcome them? What goals do you have left to accomplish?

Throughout my journey, I’ve steadfastly refused to be defined by my circumstances. Raised in Toronto’s community housing, my mother was instrumental in exposing my siblings and me to a world beyond our immediate surroundings, showing us affluent communities and instilling in us the belief that our current situation did not determine our future. This early lesson taught me that our location was not a reflection of our potential or destiny.

Faced with the challenge of navigating my formative years without parental support, I learned the importance of proactivity. I sought out opportunities, placed myself in unfamiliar environments, and was unafraid to ask for help or advice, ensuring that I always demonstrated my worth. The path wasn’t always clear, and managing situations to overcome the myriad challenges and disappointments that came with assuming adult responsibilities at a young age is something I can’t pinpoint the exact method for. Yet, these experiences were foundational.

By the age of 25, my perseverance paid off when I was appointed as an Executive Director, a position I earned through proving my capabilities. As my career advanced, new challenges emerged, particularly in leadership, but a consistent theme in my life has been the search for purpose in every experience. Looking back, the obstacles of my youth, though not understandable at the time, were essential for shaping the person I have become today. They provided me with a unique perspective that I now bring to my work, allowing me to engage with it in a deeply meaningful way.

My goals moving forward centre on continuing to leverage my experiences to effect change and inspire others. While I’ve overcome numerous challenges, the journey of growth and impact is ongoing. The objective is not just to achieve personal success but to empower and uplift others, transforming challenges into stepping stones for collective advancement. Building on my aspirations, while there are numerous personal milestones I aim to achieve, such as starting a family of my own, my career objectives have always been guided by a broader, more fluid vision. I’ve never confined myself to specific goals within my professional journey. Instead, I’ve remained open to opportunities that allow me to make a meaningful impact, wherever that may be. This approach stems from a deep-seated belief that our work chooses us long before we recognize our calling.

This conviction has led me to prioritize intentionality in my actions and presence, recognizing the profound generational influence our work can have. It’s not just about the immediate tasks at hand but about the legacy we leave behind. My commitment is to continue making myself available for impactful work, driven by a purpose that transcends conventional career ambitions. The essence of my goals lies in the difference we can make for the future, guiding my path forward with a focus on significance over specificity.

5) Did you have any role models or mentors either in your domains of entrepreneurship, work, research, and creation or outside of them? Who were they and how were they instrumental in shaping you as a person and as a professional?

Throughout my path, both in my professional and personal life, I’ve been fortunate to have mentors and role models who have significantly influenced my growth and direction.

Nadia Gouveia, my first manager at Toronto Community Housing, was a pivotal figure in my early career. She transformed my perspective on work from merely a frontline position to understanding the intricate administrative side of our sector. Nadia taught me how to measure impact, navigate Excel with proficiency, think strategically, and, crucially, recognize the value I bring to any situation. Her mentorship during those foundational years remains a cornerstone of my professional identity.

Ammanuel Mellus, another monumental figure in my life, continues to be both a mentor and a supporter. I met Ammanuel through the City Leaders program, which he founded at United Way Toronto. Now the Executive Director at NABC The Network for the Advancement of Black Communities, he has consistently provided me with opportunities to enter spaces I never imagined. Ammanuel has ensured my contributions are recognized, even in my absence, offering guidance and support that have been instrumental in my decision to remain in the sector.

On a more personal note, Marina and Patrick Fernandez, the parents of my best friend Aaron since grade 4, have been like a second family to me. Following my mother’s passing, they stepped in to fill a void, offering unwavering support and a sense of belonging during holidays, celebrations, and everyday life. Their kindness and the genuine care they’ve extended toward me, without any obligation, exemplify the very essence of humanity. Their impact on my life underscores a profound lesson: embodying the spirit of genuine compassion and support can transform lives far beyond our immediate circles.

These individuals have not only shaped me as a professional but also deeply influenced my understanding of empathy, leadership, and the importance of community.

6) What does your daily work routine look like? Where is your place of business/production and how do you stay focused and productive?

My daily routine might deviate from the typical narrative of rigid discipline and early morning workouts that many tend to highlight. My mornings begin early, grounded in my faith, as I dedicate time to prayer. This spiritual practice provides me with direction and focus for the day ahead.

After prayer, I review my calendar to understand the structure of the day, which varies significantly. My schedule might include going into the office, meeting individuals, attending speaking engagements, or conducting workshops. The diversity of my days reflects the dynamic nature of my work, stretching from morning until evening.

One key strategy for maintaining productivity is recognizing my strengths and limitations. I’ve learned that multitasking is not my forte, so I focus on completing tasks sequentially, ensuring each one receives my full attention before moving on to the next. This approach helps me stay organized and efficient.

Additionally, I’m a strong advocate for leveraging technology and new processes to enhance productivity. I’m always on the lookout for new solutions that can streamline my workflow and simplify complex tasks. This openness plays a crucial role in my ability to manage a demanding and varied schedule effectively.

7) What are your guiding principles? What informs how you do your work and how you engage with your co-workers, clients, customers, or consumers?

My guiding principles are deeply rooted in my core values of faith, integrity, adventure, and love. These values not only define who I am but also profoundly influence how I approach my work and interactions with colleagues, partners, alumni, and other stakeholders.

My diverse life experiences, compressed into a relatively short span, serve as a compass for my engagements with various individuals within my professional sphere. I’ve navigated various roles throughout my life—ranging from being a member in need of support to a stakeholder, a partner, and a coworker in frontline positions, as well as in leadership. This unique vantage point allows me to empathize deeply with people in different stages of their journey, as I can personally relate to their positions and challenges.

Reflecting on my own experiences, I often consider how I would have liked to be treated or supported in those roles. This perspective is critical in guiding my interactions and decision-making processes, aiming to treat others with the respect, understanding, and encouragement I once sought.

However, embracing this approach, especially in leadership, presents its challenges. Striving for a collaborative environment where everyone’s voice is heard can be complex in the context of managing larger organizations. Despite these complexities, I remain committed to this principle, believing that a respectful and inclusive approach fosters a more positive and productive working environment for all involved. This commitment to empathy, integrity, and inclusivity shapes not only my professional relationships but also the broader impact of my work.

 8) What are you working on now and when and how will it be shared?

I’m currently engaged with an incredible ESG company named Lehizibu. At CEE, we are on a mission to secure employer partners who are ready to make a tangible commitment to hiring young individuals through our “Black Youth Can” campaign. We are focusing our efforts across various industries, including Entertainment, Trades, Finance, Social Services, and Information Technology.

As part of this initiative, we’re inviting corporations to pledge their support as Employer Partners by actively participating in our workforce development programs. This commitment not only facilitates a vital connection between businesses and potential employees but also provides a platform for corporations to understand and witness the transformative impact they can have. By offering employment opportunities to our skilled and motivated members, corporations play a crucial role in shaping futures and fostering a more inclusive and diverse workforce.

9) What are you proudest of in your career?

The moments that stand out as the pinnacle of my career pride are intertwined with the success and advancement of the individuals I’ve had the honour of supporting through my leadership roles in various organizations. Previously, at an organization dedicated to media and film, we focused on carving out spaces for diverse talent within that industry. Now, at CEE, our efforts span across five distinct industries, all aimed at creating meaningful opportunities for young people.

The true measure of my pride comes from witnessing the countless young individuals who have secured meaningful careers and opportunities, thanks in part to the initiatives and programs I’ve been involved with. This impact isn’t just a number; it’s a living, breathing testament to the potential that can be unlocked with the right support and opportunities. Seeing their accomplishments and growth, whether through LinkedIn updates or other platforms, fills me with an immense sense of pride and accomplishment.

This reflection isn’t about personal accolades but rather about the real-world impact of our collective efforts. The knowledge that I’ve played a role, however indirect, in shaping the futures of thousands of young people is not something I take lightly. It’s a reminder of the power of purposeful work and the profound influence it can have on individuals and communities alike.

10) What are you proudest of in your life?

The aspect of my life that fills me with the most pride is the resilience and determination I’ve mustered to not be defined or limited by my circumstances. It’s a common narrative for challenging beginnings to dictate the trajectory of one’s life, but I’ve been committed to carving out a different path for myself. Turning a potentially negative situation into a source of purpose and motivation has been a transformative journey, one that I believe has been guided by a higher power, leading me to a life that feels genuinely fulfilling.

At the core of my pride is the person I’ve become, a reflection of my mother’s sacrifice and dreams. She didn’t endure the hardships of relocating to a foreign land and working tirelessly only for her efforts to go unrecognized or for her dreams for me to remain unfulfilled. Recognizing the gravity of her sacrifice, I’ve been driven to ensure that her hard work was not in vain. My achievements and the life I’ve built are a tribute to her legacy, embodying the hopes she harboured for me. This sense of fulfillment and the journey to achieve it is, without a doubt, what I am most proud of in my life.

11) What fiction or non-fiction book should be essential reading?

 Laurie Beth Jones, Jesus, CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership (New York: Hyperion, 1995)

12) What TV show or film should be essential viewing?

A recent must see is the CBC’s For the Culture with Amanda Parris.

13) How do you relax and take care of yourself?

Anyone familiar with me knows that relaxation and escapism are key components of my self-care routine. Travel holds a special place in my heart. I revel in the opportunity to explore new cultures, immerse myself in different environments, and absorb the diverse atmospheres that the world has to offer. Each new city I visit presents an opportunity for discovery, and a visit to a local spa is an indispensable part of that experience. It’s my way of blending adventure with relaxation, indulging in the unique wellness practices that each place has to offer.

When I’m not on the move, I find solace in the simple pleasure of watching television. Shows like 90 Day Fiancé and Big Brother provide a delightful departure from the complexities of daily life, offering a dose of unapologetic entertainment that allows me to momentarily disconnect from the world’s demands. This mix of travel, cultural exploration, and indulging in guilt-free television binges forms the foundation of my relaxation and self-care practices, helping me recharge and rejuvenate.

14) What’s next?

What’s next for the CEE involves a focused effort on securing and strengthening partnerships with entities ready to make a meaningful commitment to supporting Black youth aspiring to careers in the Entertainment, Trades, Finance, Social Services, and Information Technology sectors. We are dedicated to fostering strategic alliances between premier corporations and our workforce development initiatives. Our primary aim is to close the gap between young Black professionals seeking opportunities and industries in need of high-calibre talent, particularly in the aforementioned fields. Additionally, we are committed to enhancing the CEE’s existing programs and introducing new ones to further support our mission.



Agapi Gessesse is a powerful, influential, and fearless changemaker. Born and raised in Toronto by a refugee mother, Agapi’s commitment to community development stems from her lived experience, which propelled her to obtain her Master’s Degree in Social Justice. Agapi has captivated audiences on local and national stages and conferences including the National Housing Conference, AFP, and Maytree’s Five Good Ideas. She speaks and writes articles on topics such as diversity and inclusion, workforce development and youth engagement. Agapi Gessesse is currently the Executive Director of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals. She is a passionate, driven and visionary leader who champions the mission and vision of CEE-addressing economic issues affecting Black youth. Since starting her role, Agapi has spearheaded the substantial growth of the organization’s impact, reach, and sustainability. For over a decade, Agapi has worked to enhance the lives of marginalized youth through her work with Toronto Community Housing (TCHC), United Way Greater Toronto (UWGT), and as the ED of POV 3rd Street. Her roles and mandates include that of a professional fundraiser, social enterprise manager, and coordinator of the youth leadership program. Agapi’s accomplishments and practical impact continue to burgeon. Throughout her career, Agapi has been recognized for her work in the field as Dial Mover in Tech in 2019 and has been awarded the Maytree Fellow and Aroni Awards.


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